Is The Lord of the Rings a Work of Modernism?

Despite the literary sophistication of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s work is not included in slick overall surveys of literature, particularly of twentieth-century literature, particularly of Modernism. This rejection unfortunately makes it too easy for critics to ignore Tolkien and relegate his work to a crank fringe. One of the most shocking points made in Tom Shippey’s groundbreaking book J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century is how many supposedly professional critics, whether teachers or lecturers or critics or reviewers, are content to dismiss his work without having read it—despite his books having been translated into some forty languages. The other way of phrasing this is to consider how James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake would have fared if they were judged by so-called critics who had not read the books, or who were incapable of engaging with their literary and linguistic challenges.

The more closely one scrutinizes The Lord of the Rings, the more extraordinarily metafictional it appears: a story about stories, a fiction about fictions, a text about texts.

The philosopher Timothy Morton has recently considered The Lord of the Rings in the context of “Romantic irony”: “Consider Schlegel’s idea of Romantic irony. It manifests in narratives in which the narrator becomes the protagonist, unnervingly aware that the world he or she has constructed is a fiction… Irony involves distancing and displacement, a moving from place to place, or even from homey place into lonely space.” Surprisingly, he then denies that The Lord of the Rings has such qualities. But surely this is precisely what Tolkien is doing—his characters doubt the reality of their experiences, fictionalize it into tales and songs, are aware that they are in stories, and consequently recognize that they are mere characters. Tolkien’s perspective moves from omniscient narrator to first-person experiences in the mind of Gimli, in the split personality of Gollum, and in the self-doubting reflections of Sam and other characters. The book is a dramatization of Tolkien’s own process of composition, and after publication he wrote that “It is not ‘about’ anything but itself.” He objected to Auden’s suggestion that the book symbolized his own inner struggle: “The story is not about JRRT at all, and is at no point an attempt to allegorize his experience of life.” It is perhaps revealing, though, that in these notes he refers to himself in the third person – and in any case he did, inevitably, put parts of himself into the book—not as the ambiguous narrator, but in Faramir’s dream, which is Tolkien’s dream, and which he believed he had inherited. Tolkien dreamt of an inundation, a “Great Wave, towering up, and coming in ineluctably over the trees and green fields.” This “Atlantis complex,” as he termed it, led to a lifelong fascination with Atlantis, which he incorporated into his legendarium as Númenor, and which in turn formed the background to The Lord of the Rings in the figures of Aragorn, Denethor, Boromir, and Faramir, and in the heritage of Gondor. Tolkien “bequeathed” his dream to Faramir, who represents Tolkien’s own presence in the text.

But more than “Romantic irony,” is Tolkien’s mediaevalist fantasy really a bizarrely idiosyncratic Modernism, uneasily poised between the distantly remote ideals that sent young men to fight in the Great War (typified by Théoden), and the diffident laconicism that characterized the Second World War (Sam)? Indeed, the more closely one scrutinizes The Lord of the Rings, the more extraordinarily metafictional it appears: a story about stories, a fiction about fictions, a text about texts. It exposes literary conventions, plays with form, and persistently draws attention to the nature of narrative. It teems with unreliable narrators and multiple perspectives, fragmented and perplexing meaning, the ruins of a broken and hostile world. Middle-Earth has no stable moral compass; is unexplained and inexplicable; is swarming with dreams, the irrational, the supernatural, and the chaotic; and is so alienating that nearly all of the central characters have to leave it for another world. Thus it took a polymath cultural commentator to identify any similarity of style between Tolkien and his contemporaries: the pioneering writer George Steiner. Steiner, in an obituary for Tolkien published in Le Monde (6 September 1973), wrote that

In England, in contrast to France, the Celtic, Irish, Scottish, and Saxon myths and the Arthurian cycle have made their presence felt in a number of the most significant works of contemporary poetry and prose. It is impossible to appreciate the lyrical genius of Robert Graves, the novelistic force of John Cowper Powys or William Golding, the bestiaries of Ted Hughes whose violent tones current[ly] dominate English poetry, without recognizing the enduring and obsessive presence of ancient epics and legends in the current intellectual climate.

This positions Tolkien as a writer of the twentieth century more as a revivalist of Old English and Old Norse, Anglo-Saxonism and mediaevalism precisely because twentieth-century literature was dominated by ancient myth. He should find his place alongside writers such as James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, Ted Hughes, and Angela Carter: not only among the Modernist innovations of the fragmentary, the transient, and individual consciousness, but in byzantine language games, fantastical textual conceits, mythic reinventions, and the magic realism of true fairy tales. Despite his oft-quoted distaste for technology, urbanization, and the modern world, and his considered sartorial conservatism (waistcoats and tweeds, in contrast to the mannered style of a contemporary writer-artist such as Wyndham Lewis), Tolkien’s thought was pioneering. Adam Roberts comments that he “bridges old Anglo-Saxon fascinations with heroism, doom and catastrophe with modern fascinations with guilt, desire, power, compromise and the hidden springs of psychological life.” But it is more, far more than that. The ancient tales were, for Tolkien, a springboard, enabling him to leap way beyond history, far beyond the present.

He was not the only writer concerned—or, one might reasonably say, obsessed—with this at the time. George Orwell (1903–50) mirrors Tolkien’s warnings against the destruction of the English countryside and English character in books such as Coming Up for Air (1939), a novel that overlaps considerably with the critique of technological progress in the chapter “The Scouring of The Shire.” Tolkien and Orwell, in so many ways so different, in fact share deep concerns about the rise of Fascism, the spread of urbanization, and the politics of language. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell warned of totalitarian society through thoughtcrime, “Big Brother,” and the all-seeing “telescreen”; as Tom Shippey has pointed out, Tolkien voiced these same fears in The Lord of the Rings through the Rings of Power, the palantíri, and Sauron’s malevolent and all-seeing Eye.190 Tolkien’s faith, however, is finally embodied in the individual who will sacrifice all—even their afterlife—to save their fellows; it is a faith that has few, if any, equals.



Excerpted from Tolkien in the Twenty-First Century by Nick Groom—chapter four “The Hesitancy of the Good” (Pegasus Books; September 5th 2023)

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top